When it comes to voter suppression and gerrymandering, Republican-controlled state legislatures have long been a critical front in the Right’s war on democracy. In the wake of the last presidential election, Republican state lawmakers moved swiftly to pass a raft of new measures designed to rewrite election rules and restrict access to the ballot box, the most dystopian of which aspire to enshrine conservative minority rule in perpetuity.
The Right’s various legislative onslaughts in statehouses throughout the country have often been rhetorically justified as principled attempts to push back against undue federal overreach — the implication being that Republican lawmakers are merely standing up for regional democracy and championing a localist alternative to the heavy hand of centralized government. Scratch the surface of a chimera like “states’ rights,” of course, and you’ll quickly find that Republican-controlled legislatures are perfectly happy to strong-arm municipalities in pursuit of their overriding ideological objectives.
Thus, in 2017, when the City of St. Louis passed an ordinance raising its minimum wage to the princely sum of $10 an hour, Missouri’s GOP legislature passed its own law reimposing the state’s Dickensian minimum of $7.70. Examples abound of similar Republican interference in local government, notably in Florida, where the self-described party of America’s working class quickly tried to crush the minimum wage increase approved by over 61 percent of voters in November 2020 (that particular attempt eventually died in committee). Animated by a pro-corporate ideology that seeks to make the pursuit of private profit synonymous with the public good itself, Republican politicians have waged a sustained campaign against anything and everything that might stand in their way — from taxes, regulations, and environmental protections to the franchise itself.
To that end, a recently tabled bill in Florida is a testament to how far those involved in this nihilistic crusade are ultimately willing to go, and a preview as to the kind of legislation that may eventually make its way to Congress itself. In effect, SB 620 would allow businesses to sue local governments for passing measures that have cut into their profits (or that allegedly cut into their profits), while a second bill (SB 280) would mandate local governments to produce “economic impact” statements for any ordinance — creating a clear avenue for such lawsuits to proceed.
Introduced by Republican state senator Travis Hutson — whose family just happens to own a development company — the language in both bills reflects prevailing right-wing fanaticisms about the supremacy of so-called “property rights” and the use of political power in advancing them at all costs. (The text of SB 620, for example, begins as follows: “WHEREAS, the Legislature recognizes that the continued economic growth and economic prosperity of this state are tied to the protection of private property rights. . . .”)
Under the guise of promoting stability and compensating local businesses impacted by government decisions, it’s not difficult to imagine the actual impact of such legislation in practice. Every level of government, needless to say, regularly does things that affect business and commerce. Indeed, it’s arguably quite hard to think of a single function of state activity, besides the enforcement of contracts and the protection of property rights, that one private interest or another couldn’t potentially insist is cutting into its current profits (or impeding future ones). Ironically, given their inspiration, Hutson’s bills would probably require a mountain of new bureaucracy just to administer and, as critics have noted, would likely cost local governments a king’s ransom in legal fees.
This is, of course, beside the point — their ultimate purpose being to take the pro-corporate logic that already shapes much of lawmaking throughout the country and give it full judicial backing such that America’s already-limited institutions of representative democracy are subject to a legally enshrined business veto. As one Florida Democrat, state senator Tina Polsky, has pointed out, the implications of the legislation would be far more sweeping than local chains being able to sue over noise ordinances or municipal bans on the use of plastic bags. Given its scope, there’s no reason to think that big corporate actors from outside the state couldn’t seize upon it to override local governments that establish innocuous rules or regulations in the public interest: “A national corporation could veto an ordinance voted on by a duly elected official local body, in a majority vote, that had open public comment for an extended period of time.”
And as Randy Schultz, an opinion columnist for the South Florida Sun Sentinel argues, much of the state government’s existing behavior offers instruction about what’s to come if the bills end up becoming law:
In recent years, every session of the Legislature has featured special-interest attacks on home rule. Vacation rental companies want to prevent cities from regulating them to protect neighborhoods. Fossil fuel companies want to block the promotion of renewable energy. SB 280 and 620 amount to a favor for every aggrieved industry. Businesses could block all but the mildest regulation. The legislation could discourage cities and counties even from proposing regulation. . . . In a straw poll last November, Miami Beach voters said they want bars to close at 2 a.m., not 5 a.m. Under these bills, the city commission couldn’t do that. We saw a preview of this power grab last year. The Legislature nullified three voter-approved ordinances in Key West that protect local businesses and the environment from cruise ships. All cruise regulation now goes through Tallahassee.
Whether they become law or not, SB 280 and SB 620 are yet a further case study in the Right’s deep animus toward democracy and its market fundamentalism. Given the long-standing role of state legislatures as testing grounds for many of the Republican Party’s most dystopian experiments, they’re also a chilling clue about what may be in store whenever the next GOP congressional majority is sworn in.